China Roundup: Tencent’s new US gaming studio and WeChat’s new paywall

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The spotlight this week is back on Tencent, which has made some interesting moves in gaming and content publishing. There will be no roundup next week as China observes the Lunar New Year, but the battle only intensifies for the country’s internet giants, particularly short-video rivals Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and Kuaishou, which will be vying for user time over the big annual holiday. We will surely cover that when we return.

‘Honor of Kings’ creator hiring for U.S. studio

Tencent’s storied gaming studio TiMi is looking to accelerate international expansion by tripling its headcount in the U.S. in 2020, the studio told TechCrunch this week, though it refused to reveal the exact size of its North American office. Eleven-year-old TiMi currently has a team working out of Los Angeles on global business and plans to grow it into a full development studio that “helps us understand Western players and gives us a stronger global perspective,” said the studio’s international business director Vincent Gao.

Gao borrowed the Chinese expression “riding the wind and breaking the wave” to characterize TiMi’s global strategy. The wind, he said, “refers to the ever-growing desire for quality by mobile gamers.” Breaking the wave, on the other hand, entails TiMi applying new development tools to building high-budget, high-quality AAA mobile games.

The studio is credited for producing one of the world’s most-played mobile games, Honor of Kings, a mobile multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, and taking it overseas under the title Arena of Valor. Although Arena of Valor didn’t quite take off in Western markets, it has done well in Southeast Asia in part thanks to Tencent’s publishing partnership with the region’s internet giant Garena.

Honor of Kings and a few other Tencent games have leveraged the massive WeChat and QQ messengers to acquire users. That raises the question of whether Tencent can replicate its success in overseas markets where its social apps are largely absent. But TiMi contended that these platforms are not essential to a game’s success. “TiMi didn’t succeed in China because of WeChat and QQ. It’s not hard to find examples of games that didn’t succeed even with [support from] WeChat and QQ.”

Call of Duty: Mobile is developed by Tencent and published by Activision Blizzard (Image: Call of Duty: Mobile via Twitter) 

When it comes to making money, TiMi has from the outset been a strong proponent of game-as-a-service whereby it continues to pump out fresh content after the initial download. Gao believes the model will gain further traction in 2020 as it attracts old-school game developers, which were accustomed to pay-to-play, to follow suit.

All eyes are now on TiMi’s next big move, the mobile version of Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty. Tencent, given its experience in China’s mobile-first market, appears well-suited to make the mobile transition for the well-loved console shooter. Developed by Tencent and published by Blizzard, in which Tencent owns a minority stake, in September, Call of Duty: Mobile had a spectacular start, recording more worldwide downloads in a single quarter than any mobile game except Pokémon GO, which saw its peak in Q3 2016, according to app analytics company Sensor Tower.

The pedigreed studio has in recent times faced more internal competition from its siblings inside Tencent, particularly the Lightspeed Quantum studio, which is behind the successful mobile version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). While Tencent actively fosters internal rivalry between departments, Gao stressed that TiMi has received abundant support from Tencent on the likes of publishing, business development and legal matters.

WeChat erects a paywall – with Apple tax

Ever since WeChat rolled out its content publishing function — a Facebook Page equivalent named the Official Account — back in 2012, articles posted through the social networking platform have been free to read. That’s finally changing.

This week, WeChat announced that it began allowing a selected group of authors to put their articles behind a paywall in a trial period. The launch is significant not only because it can inspire creators by helping them eke out additional revenues, but it’s also a reminder of WeChat’s occasionally fraught relationship with Apple.

WeChat launched its long-awaited paywall for articles published on its platform 

Let’s rewind to 2017 when WeChat, in a much-anticipated move, added a “tipping” feature to articles published on Official Account. The function was meant to boost user engagement and incentivize writers off the back of the popularity of online tipping in China. On live streaming platforms, for instance, users consume content for free but many voluntarily send hosts tips and virtual gifts worth from a few yuan to the hundreds.

WeChat said at the time that all transfers from tipping would go toward the authors, but Apple thought otherwise, claiming that such tips amounted to “in-app purchases” and thus entitled it to a 30% cut from every transaction, or what is widely known as the “Apple tax.”

WeChat disabled tipping following the clash over the terms but reintroduced the feature in 2018 after reaching consensus with Apple. The function has been up and running since then and neither WeChat nor Apple charged from the transfers, a spokesperson from WeChat confirmed with TechCrunch.

If the behemoths’ settlement over tipping was a concession on Apple’s end, Tencent has budged on paywalls this time.

Unlike tipping, the new paywall feature entitles Apple to its standard 30% cut of in-app transactions. That means transfers for paid content will go through Apple’s in-app purchase (IAP) system rather than WeChat’s own payments tool, as is the case with tipping. It also appears that only users with a Chinese Apple account are able to pay for WeChat articles. TechCrunch’s attempt to purchase a post using a U.S. Apple account was rejected by WeChat on account of the transaction “incurring risks or not paying with RMB.”

The launch is certainly a boon to creators who enjoy a substantial following, although many of them have already explored third-party platforms for alternative commercial possibilities beyond the advertising and tipping options that WeChat enables. Zhishi Xingqiu, the “Knowledge Planet”, for instance, is widely used by WeChat creators to charge for value-added services such as providing readers with exclusive industry reports. Xiaoe-tong, or “Smart Little Goose”, is a popular tool for content stars to roll out paid lessons.

Not everyone is bullish on the new paywall. One potential drawback is it will drive down traffic and discourage advertisers. Others voice concerns that the paid feature is vulnerable to exploitation by clickbait creators. On that end, WeChat has restricted the application to the function only to accounts that are over three months old, have published at least three original articles and have seen no serious violations of WeChat rules.

China Roundup: Tencent’s new US gaming studio and WeChat’s new paywall

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The spotlight this week is back on Tencent, which has made some interesting moves in gaming and content publishing. There will be no roundup next week as China observes the Lunar New Year, but the battle only intensifies for the country’s internet giants, particularly short-video rivals Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and Kuaishou, which will be vying for user time over the big annual holiday. We will surely cover that when we return.

‘Honor of Kings’ creator hiring for U.S. studio

Tencent’s storied gaming studio TiMi is looking to accelerate international expansion by tripling its headcount in the U.S. in 2020, the studio told TechCrunch this week, though it refused to reveal the exact size of its North American office. Eleven-year-old TiMi currently has a team working out of Los Angeles on global business and plans to grow it into a full development studio that “helps us understand Western players and gives us a stronger global perspective,” said the studio’s international business director Vincent Gao.

Gao borrowed the Chinese expression “riding the wind and breaking the wave” to characterize TiMi’s global strategy. The wind, he said, “refers to the ever-growing desire for quality by mobile gamers.” Breaking the wave, on the other hand, entails TiMi applying new development tools to building high-budget, high-quality AAA mobile games.

The studio is credited for producing one of the world’s most-played mobile games, Honor of Kings, a mobile multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, and taking it overseas under the title Arena of Valor. Although Arena of Valor didn’t quite take off in Western markets, it has done well in Southeast Asia in part thanks to Tencent’s publishing partnership with the region’s internet giant Garena.

Honor of Kings and a few other Tencent games have leveraged the massive WeChat and QQ messengers to acquire users. That raises the question of whether Tencent can replicate its success in overseas markets where its social apps are largely absent. But TiMi contended that these platforms are not essential to a game’s success. “TiMi didn’t succeed in China because of WeChat and QQ. It’s not hard to find examples of games that didn’t succeed even with [support from] WeChat and QQ.”

Call of Duty: Mobile is developed by Tencent and published by Activision Blizzard (Image: Call of Duty: Mobile via Twitter) 

When it comes to making money, TiMi has from the outset been a strong proponent of game-as-a-service whereby it continues to pump out fresh content after the initial download. Gao believes the model will gain further traction in 2020 as it attracts old-school game developers, which were accustomed to pay-to-play, to follow suit.

All eyes are now on TiMi’s next big move, the mobile version of Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty. Tencent, given its experience in China’s mobile-first market, appears well-suited to make the mobile transition for the well-loved console shooter. Developed by Tencent and published by Blizzard, in which Tencent owns a minority stake, in September, Call of Duty: Mobile had a spectacular start, recording more worldwide downloads in a single quarter than any mobile game except Pokémon GO, which saw its peak in Q3 2016, according to app analytics company Sensor Tower.

The pedigreed studio has in recent times faced more internal competition from its siblings inside Tencent, particularly the Lightspeed Quantum studio, which is behind the successful mobile version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). While Tencent actively fosters internal rivalry between departments, Gao stressed that TiMi has received abundant support from Tencent on the likes of publishing, business development and legal matters.

WeChat erects a paywall – with Apple tax

Ever since WeChat rolled out its content publishing function — a Facebook Page equivalent named the Official Account — back in 2012, articles posted through the social networking platform have been free to read. That’s finally changing.

This week, WeChat announced that it began allowing a selected group of authors to put their articles behind a paywall in a trial period. The launch is significant not only because it can inspire creators by helping them eke out additional revenues, but it’s also a reminder of WeChat’s occasionally fraught relationship with Apple.

WeChat launched its long-awaited paywall for articles published on its platform 

Let’s rewind to 2017 when WeChat, in a much-anticipated move, added a “tipping” feature to articles published on Official Account. The function was meant to boost user engagement and incentivize writers off the back of the popularity of online tipping in China. On live streaming platforms, for instance, users consume content for free but many voluntarily send hosts tips and virtual gifts worth from a few yuan to the hundreds.

WeChat said at the time that all transfers from tipping would go toward the authors, but Apple thought otherwise, claiming that such tips amounted to “in-app purchases” and thus entitled it to a 30% cut from every transaction, or what is widely known as the “Apple tax.”

WeChat disabled tipping following the clash over the terms but reintroduced the feature in 2018 after reaching consensus with Apple. The function has been up and running since then and neither WeChat nor Apple charged from the transfers, a spokesperson from WeChat confirmed with TechCrunch.

If the behemoths’ settlement over tipping was a concession on Apple’s end, Tencent has budged on paywalls this time.

Unlike tipping, the new paywall feature entitles Apple to its standard 30% cut of in-app transactions. That means transfers for paid content will go through Apple’s in-app purchase (IAP) system rather than WeChat’s own payments tool, as is the case with tipping. It also appears that only users with a Chinese Apple account are able to pay for WeChat articles. TechCrunch’s attempt to purchase a post using a U.S. Apple account was rejected by WeChat on account of the transaction “incurring risks or not paying with RMB.”

The launch is certainly a boon to creators who enjoy a substantial following, although many of them have already explored third-party platforms for alternative commercial possibilities beyond the advertising and tipping options that WeChat enables. Zhishi Xingqiu, the “Knowledge Planet”, for instance, is widely used by WeChat creators to charge for value-added services such as providing readers with exclusive industry reports. Xiaoe-tong, or “Smart Little Goose”, is a popular tool for content stars to roll out paid lessons.

Not everyone is bullish on the new paywall. One potential drawback is it will drive down traffic and discourage advertisers. Others voice concerns that the paid feature is vulnerable to exploitation by clickbait creators. On that end, WeChat has restricted the application to the function only to accounts that are over three months old, have published at least three original articles and have seen no serious violations of WeChat rules.

Mozilla lays off 70 as it waits for new products to generate revenue

Mozilla laid off about 70 employees today, TechCrunch has learned.

In an internal memo, Mozilla chairwoman and interim CEO Mitchell Baker specifically mentions the slow rollout of the organization’s new revenue-generating products as the reason for why it needed to take this action. The overall number may still be higher, though, as Mozilla is still looking into how this decision will affect workers in the U.K. and France. In 2018, Mozilla Corporation (as opposed to the much smaller Mozilla Foundation) said it had about 1,000 employees worldwide.

“You may recall that we expected to be earning revenue in 2019 and 2020 from new subscription products as well as higher revenue from sources outside of search. This did not happen,” Baker writes in her memo. “Our 2019 plan underestimated how long it would take to build and ship new, revenue-generating products. Given that, and all we learned in 2019 about the pace of innovation, we decided to take a more conservative approach to projecting our revenue for 2020. We also agreed to a principle of living within our means, of not spending more than we earn for the foreseeable future.”

Baker says laid-off employees will receive “generous exit packages” and outplacement support. She also notes that the leadership team looked into shutting down the Mozilla innovation fund but decided that it needed it in order to continue developing new products. In total, Mozilla is dedicating $43 million to building new products.

“As we look to the future, we know we must take bold steps to evolve and ensure the strength and longevity of our mission,” Baker writes. “Mozilla has a strong line of sight to future revenue generation, but we are taking a more conservative approach to our finances. This will enable us to pivot as needed to respond to market threats to internet health, and champion user privacy and agency.”

The organization last reported major layoffs in 2017.

Over the course of the last few months, Mozilla started testing a number of new products, most of which will be subscription-based once they launch. The marquee feature here is including its Firefox Private Network and a device-level VPN service that is yet to launch, but will cost around $4.99 per month.

All of this is part of the organization’s plans to become less reliant on income from search partnerships and to create more revenue channels. In 2018, the latest year for which Mozilla has published its financial records, about 91% of its royalty revenues came from search contracts.

We have reached out to Mozilla for comment and will update this post once we hear more.

Update (1pm PT): In a statement posted to the Mozilla blog, Mitchell Baker reiterates that Mozilla had to make these cuts in order to fund innovation. “Mozilla has a strong line of sight on future revenue generation from our core business,” she writes. “In some ways, this makes this action harder, and we are deeply distressed about the effect on our colleagues. However, to responsibly make additional investments in innovation to improve the internet, we can and must work within the limits of our core finances”


Here is the full memo:

Office of the CEO <[email protected]>
to all-moco-mofo

Hi all,

I have some difficult news to share. With the support of the entire Steering Committee and our Board, we have made an extremely tough decision: over the course of today, we plan to eliminate about 70 roles from across MoCo. This number may be slightly larger as we are still in a consultation process in the UK and France, as the law requires, on the exact roles that may be eliminated there. We are doing this with the utmost respect for each and every person who is impacted and will go to great lengths to take care of them by providing generous exit packages and outplacement support. Most will not join us in Berlin. I will send another note when we have been able to talk to the affected people wherever possible, so that you will know when the notifications/outreach are complete.

This news likely comes as a shock and I am sorry that we could not have been more transparent with you along the way. This is never my desire. Reducing our headcount was something the Steering Committee considered as part of our 2020 planning and budgeting exercise only after all other avenues were explored. The final decision was made just before the holiday break with the work to finalize the exact set of roles affected continuing into early January (there are exceptions in the UK and France where we are consulting on decisions.) I made the decision not to communicate about this until we had a near-final list of roles and individuals affected.

Even though I expect it will be difficult to digest right now, I would like to share more about what led to this decision. Perhaps you can come back to it later, if that’s easier.

You may recall that we expected to be earning revenue in 2019 and 2020 from new subscription products as well as higher revenue from sources outside of search. This did not happen. Our 2019 plan underestimated how long it would take to build and ship new, revenue-generating products. Given that, and all we learned in 2019 about the pace of innovation, we decided to take a more conservative approach to projecting our revenue for 2020. We also agreed to a principle of living within our means, of not spending more than we earn for the foreseeable future.

This approach is prudent certainly, but challenging practically. In our case, it required difficult decisions with painful results. Regular annual pay increases, bonuses and other costs which increase from year-to-year as well as a continuing need to maintain a separate, substantial innovation fund, meant that we had to look for considerable savings across Mozilla as part of our 2020 planning and budgeting process. This process ultimately led us to the decision to reduce our workforce.

At this point, you might ask if we considered foregoing the separate innovation fund, continuing as we did in 2019. The answer is yes but we ultimately decided we could not, in good faith, adopt this. Mozilla’s future depends on us excelling at our current work and developing new offerings to expand our impact. And creating the new products we need to change the future requires us to do things differently, including allocating funds, $43M to be specific, for this purpose. We will discuss our plans for making innovation robust and successful in increasing detail as we head into, and then again at, the All Hands, rather than trying to do so here.

As we look to the future, we know we must take bold steps to evolve and ensure the strength and longevity of our mission. Mozilla has a strong line of sight to future revenue generation, but we are taking a more conservative approach to our finances. This will enable us to pivot as needed to respond to market threats to internet health, and champion user privacy and agency.

I ask that we all do what we can to support each other through this difficult period.

Mitchell

Google wants to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome within two years

Google today announced its plans to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome within the next two years. The fact that Google will drop support for these cookies, which are typically used to track users across the web, doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, given Google’s announcements around privacy in Chrome, including its proposed ‘privacy sandbox.’  But this aggressive timeline is new and puts the company on a track that will have repercussions for a lot of other industries as well.

“This is our strategy to re-architect the standards of the web, to make it privacy-preserving by default,” Justin Schuh, Google’s director for Chrome engineering, told me. “There’s been a lot of focus around third-party cookies, and that certainly one of the tracking mechanisms, but that’s just a tracking mechanism and we’re calling it out because it’s the one that people are paying attention to.” Preventing fingerprinting, among other things, is also something Google’s team is working on.

Starting this February, Google will already implement some techniques for limiting cross-site tracking by enforcing its new SameSite rules and by requiring that cookies that are labeled for third-party use can only be accessed over an HTTPS connection. The new SameSite rules, which Google had already tested with a subset of users in Chrome over the last few months, are somewhat complex, but the over idea here is that developers who want others to be able to use their cookies will have to explicitly label them as such.

Over the next two years, though, Google plans to go far beyond this and completely remove support for third-party cookies from Chrome. That, however, marks a massive change for the advertising industry and the publishers that often depend on marketers’ ability to (for better or worse) track users across the web. Google’s solution to this is the ‘privacy sandbox,’ which would ideally still allow advertisers to show you relevant ads while also allowing you to share as little about you and your browsing history as possible.

What exactly this will look like still remains to be seen, though, as a lot of the ideas are still in flux. Schuh, however, noted that Google doesn’t want to go this alone and that it plans to go through the web standards process for this. He noted that Google plans to start some trials over the next year or so and start migrating advertisers and publishers to some of the new systems it is working on.

This is a massive change, though, and Google will surely face some pushback. “I’m not going to say that everyone has been on board for all of our proposals,” Schuh admitted. “But in all corners, some of the proposals have been received very well. For the ones that haven’t, we’re open to alternative solutions as long as they have the kind of privacy and security properties — as long as they have the same kind of predictability that we expect — because we don’t want to put bandaid solutions on top of the web, we would rather fix the architecture of the web, […] we just don’t see any alternative but to fix the architecture of the web.”

Others, however, will have to get on board — including other browser vendors. Schuh seems optimistic that this will happen, in part because it is also in the best interest of the users. “We don’t want the web to be fragmented,” he said. “We don’t want people to have to figure out every different thing they have to do on every different browser. We want a level of consistency here, even if there are details that browsers choose to be different.”

Right now, a lot of Chrome’s competitors like Mozilla’s Firefox have taken pretty radical approaches to simply blocking many third-party cookies. Google argues that this will be to the detriment of the web and only drive the industry to find workarounds.

As with all of Google’s recent privacy proposals, it’ll be interesting to watch how the industry will react to this one. Given Google’s own role in the advertising ecosystem, Google has some clear financial interests in getting this right — and to keep the advertising ecosystem on the web healthy.

 

Is Facebook dead to Gen Z?

The writing is on the wall for Facebook — the platform is losing market share, fast, among young users.

Edison Research’s Infinite Dial study from early 2019 showed that 62% of U.S. 12–34 year-olds are Facebook users, down from 67% in 2018 and 79% in 2017. This decrease is particularly notable as 35–54 and 55+ age group usage has been constant or even increased.

There are many theories behind Facebook’s fall from grace among millennials and Gen Zers — an influx of older users that change the dynamics of the platform, competition from more mobile and visual-friendly platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, and the company’s privacy scandals are just a few.

We surveyed 115 of our Accelerated campus ambassadors to learn more about how they’re using Facebook today. It’s worth noting that this group skews older Gen Z (ages 18–24); we suspect you’d get different results if you surveyed younger teens.

Overall penetration is still high, as 99% of our respondents have Facebook accounts. And most aren’t abandoning the platform entirely — 59% are on Facebook every day, and another 32% are on weekly. Daily Facebook usage is much lower than Instagram, however, which 82% of our respondents use daily and 7% use weekly.

Data from our scouts also confirms that the shift in usage in the last few years is particularly dramatic among younger users. 66% report using Facebook less frequently over the past two years, compared to 11% who use it more frequently (23% say their usage hasn’t changed).

What’s most interesting is what college students are using Facebook for. When we were in high school and college in the early/mid 2010s, our friends used Facebook to post (broadcast) content via their status, photos, and posts on friends’ Walls. Today, very few students use Facebook to “broadcast” content. Only 5% of our respondents say they regularly upload photos to Facebook, 4% post on friends’ Walls, and 3.5% post content to the Newsfeed (statuses). What are they doing instead?

Vinted, the second-hand clothes marketplace, raises $141M at a $1B+ valuation

The market for second-hand clothes — the “circular economy” as it’s sometimes called — has been on the rise in the last several years, fuelled by economic crunches, a desire to make more responsible and less wasteful fashion choices, and a wave of digital platforms that are bringing the selling and buying of used clothes outside the charity shop. Today, one of the bigger companies in Europe working in the third of these areas is announcing a huge round of funding to double down on the trend.

Vinted, a site where consumers can sell and buy second-hand fashion, has raised €128 million (around $140.9 million) in a round that is being led by Lightspeed Venture Partners, with previous backers Sprints Capital, Insight Venture Partners, Accel and Burda Principal Investments also participating.

With this investment, the startup — founded and headquartered out of Vilnius, Lithuania — has passed a valuation of $1 billion (it is not specifying an exact amount), making it one of the biggest startups to come out of the country (but not the Baltics’ first unicorn… Estonian Uber competitor Bolt, formerly known as Taxify, is also valued at over $1 billion.)

The company is going to use the money to continue expanding in Europe, and building out more features on its platform to improve the buying and selling process, while sticking to its goal of providing a platform for consumers to list and buy used fashion.

“We want to make sure we don’t have new products,” CEO Thomas Plantenga said in an interview earlier. “All our sellers are regular people.” Some 75% of Vinted’s customers have never bought or sold second hand clothes in their lives before coming to the platform, he added. “The stigma is no longer there.”

Vinted’s growth comes on the heels of a remarkable turnaround for the startup. Founded in 2008 by Milda Mitkute and Justas Janauskas as a way to help Mitkute clear out here wardrobe before a house move, the company expanded fast, but at a price: by 2016, it was close to running out of money and business had slowed down to a crawl. Investors brought in Plantenga to turn it around.

“We changed the business model in 2016 to make the costs as low as possible for users to list clothes,” Pantenga said today. “That produced a dramatic change in our growth trajectory.”

The company, more specifically, went through some drastic changes. First, it clawed back a lot of its pricey international expansion strategy (and along with that a lot of the costs associated with it); and second, it removed all listing fees to encourage more people to list. Now, Vinted charges a 5% commission only if you conduct transactions on Vinted itself, bundling in buyer protection and shipping to sweeten the deal. (You can still post, sell and buy for free if you pay offline but you don’t get those perks.)

The turnaround worked, and the company bounced back, and two years later, in 2018, it went on to raise €50 million. Today, Vinted has some 180 million products live on its platform, 25 million registered users in 12 markets in Europe (but not the US) and 300 employees. It expects to sell €1.3 billion in clothes in 2019, has seen sales grow 4x in the last 17 months.

From fast fashion to fashion that lasts

Vinted’s rise has matched a wider trend in the region.

Europe is the home to some of the world’s biggest “fast fashion” businesses: companies like H&M, Zara and Primark have built huge brands around making quick copies of the hottest styles off the fashion presses, and selling them for prices that will not break the bank (or at least, no more than you might have previously paid to buy a pair of average jeans on the discount rack of a Gap).

But it turns out that it’s also home to a very thriving market in second-hand clothes. One estimate has it that two out of every three Europeans has bought a second-hand good, and 6 out of 10 have sold their belongings using platforms dedicated to second-hand trade.

Even as the company continues to hold back on expanding into the US — perhaps burned a little too much by its previous efforts there; or simply aware of the wide competition from the likes of Ebay, OfferUp, Letgo, Poshmark, and many more — Vinted’s growth in Europe has caught the eye of investors in the that market.

“At Lightspeed, we look for outlier management teams building generational companies. We’ve been impressed by the team’s ability to build an incredible product and value proposition for their community, and adapt and expand their business along the way,” said Brad Twohig, a partner at Lightspeed. “Vinted is defining its market and has built a global brand in C2C commerce and communities. We’re proud to partner with Vinted and leverage our global platform and resources to help them continue to build on their success and achieve their goals.”

While charity shops have traditionally dominated this market, sites like eBay, followed by a secondary wave of platforms like Vinted and another competitor in this space, Depop, have made selling and buying items into an established, low-barrier business.

All the same, given that extending the life of one’s goods feeds into a do-good ethos, it’s noticeable to me that Vinted hasn’t quite replaced the Salvation Army: there is virtually no way to sell on Vinted and give the proceeds to charity, if you so choose.

It appears that this might be something Vinted will try to address in the future.

“We are looking at making fashion circular for our users so that clothing that they bought doesn’t go to waste,” Plantenga said. “[Giving proceeds to charity] is super interesting and we should explore it as part of our growth story. To be honest, those things have been in the background and not developed because we’ve just been trying to keep up with everything, but the idea fits into our culture.”

E-commerce — in particular startups nipping at the heels of bigger players like Amazon and eBay by focusing on specific areas of the market that aren’t as well served by them — has had a bumper day in Europe, after brick-and-mortar marketplace Trouva earlier today also raised a sizeable round.

Twitter to add a way to ‘memorialize’ accounts for deceased users before removing inactive ones

Twitter has changed its tune regarding inactive accounts after receiving a lot of user feedback: It will now be developing a way to “memorialize” user accounts for those who have passed away, before proceeding with a plan it confirmed this week to deactivate accounts that are inactive in order to “present more accurate, credible information” on the service. To the company’s credit, it reacted swiftly after receiving a significant amount of negative feedback on this move, and it seems like the case of deceased users simply wasn’t considered in the decision to proceed with terminating dormant accounts.

After Twitter confirmed the inactive account (those that haven’t tweeted in more than six months) cleanup on Tuesday, a number of users noted that this would also have the effect of erasing the content of accounts whose owners have passed away. TechCrunch alum Drew Olanoff wrote about this impact from a personal perspective, asking Twitter to reconsider their move in light of the human impact and potential emotional cost.

In a thread today detailing their new thinking around inactive accounts, Twitter explained that its current inactive account policy has actually always been in place, but that they haven’t been diligent about enforcing it. They’re going to begin doin so in the European Union partly in accordance with local privacy laws, citing GDPR specifically. But the company also says it will now not be removing any inactive accounts before first implementing a way for inactive accounts belonging to deceased users to be “memorialized,” which presumably means preserving their content.

Twitter went on to day that it might expand or refine its inactive account policy to ensure it works with global privacy regulations, but will be sure to communicate these changes broadly before they go into effect.

It’s not yet clear what Twitter will do to offer this ‘memorialization’ of accounts, but there is some precedent they can look to for cues: Facebook has a ‘memorialized accounts’ feature that it introduced for similar reasons.

Direct mail still works if you avoid common mistakes

We’ve aggregated many of the world’s best growth marketers into one community. Twice a month, we ask them to share their most effective growth tactics, and we compile them into this Growth Report.

This is how you stay up-to-date on growth marketing tactics — with advice that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Our community consists of 1,000 startup founders and VP’s of growth from later-stage companies. We have 400 YC founders, plus senior marketers from companies including Medium, Docker, Invision, Intuit, Pinterest, Discord, Webflow, Lambda School, Perfect Keto, Typeform, Modern Fertility, Segment, Udemy, Puma, Cameo and Ritual .

You can participate in our community by joining Demand Curve’s marketing webinars, Slack group, or marketing training program.

Without further ado, onto our community’s advice.

Advertising in Discord/Telegram communities

Insights from Varun Mathure of Midnite

Discord/Telegram can be a great place to find engaged, niche communities for advertising. However, do not treat it like a typical ad channel. Community marketing is its own art, and there are many principles to doing it effectively. Here are just a few:

  • Treat Discord/Telegram users like you would Reddit users: they’ll reject being advertised to unless there’s legitimate, authentic value being provided.
  • Work with moderators to offer services that make their moderation duties easier. Perhaps a bot or tool that would be legitimately useful to the community while also organically pitching your startup.
  • Have a well-respected community member vouch for you — it goes a long way toward building trust with the rest of the community. Always start by building relationships.
  • Have a member of your team active in the community. Don’t just advertise; contribute regularly.
  • Run promos/incentives that encourage members to post your product screenshots or share your product output in the community. In other words, incentivize a frictionless way for community members to become your brand ambassadors.

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Uber reports a sharp rise in government demands for user data

Uber says the number of legal demands for riders’ data made by U.S. and Canadian authorities has risen sharply in the past year.

The ride-hailing company said the number of law enforcement demands for user data during 2018 are up 27% on the year earlier, according to its annual transparency report published Wednesday. Uber said the rise in demands was partly due to its business growing in size, but also a “rising interest” from governments to access data on its customers.

Uber said it received 3,825 demands for 21,913 user accounts from the U.S. government, with the company turning over some data in 72% of cases, during 2018.

That’s up from 2,940 demands for 17,181 user accounts a year earlier, with a slightly higher compliance rate of 73%.

Canadian authorities submitted 161 demands for data on 593 user accounts during 2018.

Uber said that the rise in demands for customer data presents a challenge for the ride-hailing company, previously valued at $82 billion, which went public in May. “Our responsibility to preserve consumer privacy while meeting regulatory and public safety obligations will become increasingly complex and challenging as we field a growing number of government requests for data every year,” said Uttara Sivaram, Uber’s global privacy and security public policy chief.

The company also said it disclosed ride information on 34 million users to U.S. regulators and 1.8 million users to Canadian regulators, such as local taxi and transport authorities. Uber said it is mandated to give over the information to regulators as part of the “bespoke legal and regulatory requirements to which we are subject,” which can include pickup and drop-off locations, fares, and other data that may “identify individual riders,” the company said.

Uber isn’t the only company fielding a record number of demands from governments. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter have all reported a rise in government demands over the past year as their customer base continues to grow while governments become increasingly hungry for companies’ data.

But Uber’s figures only offer insight into only the largest portions of its businesses — its consumer and business ride-hailing services, food delivery, and electric scooters — and only covers the North America, despite operating in hundreds of cities around the world.

Despite the rise in overall law enforcement requests, Uber said it “has not received a national security request” to date.

Such disclosures are rare but not unheard of. Most national security demands, such as orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and FBI-issued subpoenas, are coupled with secrecy rules that prevent the companies from disclosing anything about the demand. By proactive posting these so-called “warrant canary” statements, companies can quietly reveal when they have received such orders by removing the statements from their websites.

Apple famously used a warrant canary in its first transparency report in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. In 2016, Reddit quietly removed its warrant canary suggesting it had received a classified order.

Although the First Amendment protects government-compelled speech, the legality of warrant canaries remain legally questionable.

VoltServer adds a data layer to electricity distribution in a move that could help smart grid rollout

Stephen Eaves, the chief executive of a new startup which promises to overlay data on electricity distribution has spent years developing data management technologies.

Eaves’ first company, the eponymous Eaves Devices focused on energy systems in aerospace and defense — they converted the military’s fleet of B2 bombers to use lithium ion batteries.

The second company he was involved in was developing modular array devices to install in central offices and cell towers and conducted early work on electric vehicle development.

His goal, Eaves says, was to “make electricity inherently safe”.

VoltServer is the latest company from Eaves to pursue that goal. Eaves makes transmission safer by breaking electrical distribution into packets and those packets are sent down transmission lines to ensure that are not faults. If there’s a break in the line, the equipment stops transmitting energy.

“We take either AC or DC electricity into a transmitter and the transmitter breaks the electricity into packets and the receiver takes the packets and puts them back together and distributes it as regular AC/DC current,” Eaves explains.

The architecture is akin to a router. There’s digital signal processing in the transmitter powered by a semiconductor that’s a gateway for the electricity. “It’s like the devices you find in solar power converters,” says Eaves.

Already roughly 700 stadiums, large offices, and indoor grow facilities have deployed the company’s technology. And the traction was enough to attract the attention of Alphabet subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, which led a recent $7.4 million financing into the company. To date, the company has raised $18 million from a clutch of investors including: Marker Hill Capital, Slater Technology Fund, Natural Resources Capital Management, Clean Energy Venture Group, Angel Street Capital and Coniston Capital.  

“We’re kind of a combined hardware and software company,” says Eaves. “[Customers] buy the boxes and the company has third parties that install it.. There are software applications to track energy usage to assign processes for what to do in an outage.”

Typical installations can be anywhere from $30,000 to $1 million and the company is targeting three core markets — intelligent building infrastructure, communications, and indoor agriculture, according to Eaves. In fact, the company’s largest installation is a lettuce farm in Florida. “You’re in a very constrained environment and you want a very safe transmission technology. And we’ve developed a lighting product. It removes a lot of the conversion electronics that would normally be in the growth space,” says Eaves.

The technology certainly slashes the cost for power transmission in a stadium. Traditional power transmission can cost roughly $36 per linear foot, while VoltServer can cut that cost to less than $10 per foot, according to the company.

VoltServer isn’t the only startup that’s looking to add data controls to electricity distribution. Companies like Blueprint PowerBlue Pillar, and monitoring companies like Enertiv and Aquicore are all looking at ways to monitor and manage distribution. At the grid scale, there’s Camus Energy which looks to provide energy “orchestration” services.

“Electricity powers our world, but the fundamental danger inherent in AC or DC electricity makes today’s electrical systems expensive to install or change,” said Sidewalk Labs chairman and chief executive, Dan Doctoroff in a statement. “[This technology] is a breakthrough, offering a less expensive, safer and more efficient way to distribute electricity that can make buildings more affordable and flexible.  Over time, that can make cities more affordable, sustainable, and adaptable as our needs change.”

For some investors in the energy sector, these kinds of distribution and transmission technologies are a critical component of the next generation of grid technologies needed to bring the world closer to 100% renewable transmission.

“What is relevant is internet-connected, controllable energy assets that you can control from some centralized dispatch,” says one investor active in energy investing.